Chemical Dispersants 101: How They Work (Video)


Photo via Oil Spill Solutions

One of the biggest points of contention surrounding BP's response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf has been the company's use of chemical dispersants to break it up. Environmentalists are wary that the toxic chemicals may be even worse for marine life than the oil, and the fact that it's never been used on such a large scale make plenty of people queasy. But few seem to understand what they really are and how they work. So here's Dr. Mark Johnson, eminent toxicologist for the federal government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, explaining how the stuff breaks down oil, why it creates tar balls, and some of the concerns with it:

Indeed -- with literally millions of gallons of oil getting dispersed, I'd say it's accurate that there's a concern about what will happen to all that tar that washes up ashore or sinks to the ocean floor. So that's the gist of how the dispersants work, and it's easy to see why both BP and federal regulators are eager to make use of them: they prevent both the nastiest forms of crude from coating shorelines and wildlife, and deprive the press of a horrific photo op that could mar public perception of the disaster response.

It's my feeling that the use of the dispersants will end up being a primary focus of the narrative of the Gulf oil spill -- alongside the expected role of corporate malfeasance and the do-we-don't-we debate over expanding offshore drilling. That's because the stuff is so untested on this scale -- and the deep water dispersants are untested altogether -- and the true impact they have on marine habitats and the aquatic food chain will likely only be determined after the spraying is long over.

I, for one, don't find answers like this, to whether these toxic chemicals will remain in the environment, particularly satisfactory:

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